APS News

Science Meets Politics: A Complicated Relationship

By Gabriel Popkin

APS April Meeting 2016 — Ever since its birth, science has mixed with politics, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. But speakers at an invited session at the APS April Meeting 2016 organized by the Forum on Physics and Society agreed that U.S. science policy has taken a troubling turn in recent years, and called on scientists to reassess their role in the political conversation.

Spencer Weart, historian emeritus at the American Institute of Physics, traced scientists’ involvement in two of the 20th and early-21st centuries’ most contentious issues: nuclear energy and climate change. In the case of nuclear energy, scientists came down on both sides, some emphasizing its dangers and others promoting its use. As a result, nuclear bomb testing went underground and was then phased out altogether, while nuclear fission became a significant player in the global energy landscape.

But the nuclear industry has also become much more intensely regulated than nearly any other, and its once-rapid growth in the U.S. and other developed countries has largely stalled. “You could call that a success or failure, depending on your point of view,” Weart said.

On climate change, by contrast, nearly all scientists agree that climate change is real, humans are causing it, and politicians need to take action. Yet a well-funded counter-movement, aided by a small number of scientists willing to publicly contradict the majority, has cast doubt on the scientific consensus and prevented a robust political response, Weart said.

“This is the first time as far as I know in the history of the world that there have been major groups of people viciously attacking individual scientists because of their scientific views,” Weart said of the climate change debate. “And [the attacks are] not just by anybody, but by leaders of one of our major political parties.”

Scientists’ involvement in such charged issues has at times led to better decision-making, but it may have also cost scientists some of the bipartisan support they used to enjoy, Weart said, citing polls showing that conservatives’ trust in scientists has eroded in recent years.

Rush Holt, a physicist who served for 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and is now chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shared a somewhat more optimistic take on the role scientists can play in politics. While acknowledging that few policy makers have deep scientific expertise, Holt added that “You don’t have to be a professional scientist to understand the rudiments of science.”

Policy makers represent the people that elected them, so scientists should focus on helping the public better understand how scientists evaluate evidence and come to conclusions, Holt said. He emphasized that this is different from the commonly used but largely ineffective strategy of simply presenting the public with more facts. “Our goal should be to equip and empower nonscientists to deal with the issues they confront, to understand the benefits of this empirical way of thinking, and to develop a reverence for evidence and the ability to handle evidence on their own.”

The science-policy discourse has changed as policy makers have become less insulated from public opinion, agrees Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at APS. “Members of Congress are increasingly worried about what their constituents think — they will watch your behavior and voting patterns more than 25 years ago.”

But Lubell took issue with Weart’s assertion that the public’s trust in science has actually fallen. He cited soon-to-be-published results from a poll conducted by the nonprofits Research!America and Science Counts that show that at most four percent of the public is anti-science. (Science Counts has received APS support and Lubell is a senior advisor to the group.)

“People do trust scientists,” he said.

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